Category Archives: daily observation

Verlag Volk und Welt: publishers for the citizens of nowhere

Yesterday’s thoughts about the Frankfurt Book Fair in the early 1970s find echoes in today’s reading of Max Frisch’s Aus dem Berliner Journal, a record of the Swiss writer’s time in Berlin in 1973-4, published by Suhrkamp in 2014.

As well as hearing of the writer’s everyday life and the move to Berlin, we also learn of the time Frisch spends in what he calls DDR-Berlin, giving readings, meeting other writers and discussing the local editions of his books with East German publishers, Verlag Volk und Welt.

He enjoys the company of other writers, and spends time with the likes of Christa Wolf and Wolf Biermann on one side of the wall; Günter Grass and Uwe Johnson on the other.

It’s a timely reminder that publishers and writers have always played a role in crossing cultural and political lines in Europe, something that might be important as British publishers and writers are forced out of the European Union by their careless government.

It’s an interesting footnote that Verlag Volk und Welt did not survive the unification of Germany, although the imprint is now owned by Verlagsgruppe Random House.

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Speaking out at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Some thoughts at this time of year when publishers are getting ready to travel to the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s easy-peasy. You plan your appointments by email or messaging; send your display and sample copies by courier; pop on a cheap flight; pay with your debit or credit card; use your own phone to keep in touch around the world. Most communication will be in English.

Once upon a time it wasn’t like this. In the early 1970s many of us drove to Germany (by various favourite routes through France, Belgium, Netherlands), using multiple currencies (always cash); as we crossed borders our passports would be needed of course, but also our boxes of books, proofs, catalogues and display materials might be examined or impounded until duty was paid. For a week or more we were mostly out of touch with office and home. We used what languages we had to talk to publishers and booksellers from around the world.

All agreements that included royalties, co-publication, book sales were fraught with the difficulties of operating under different legal and commercial systems; we needed to know about shipping and the documents that were required to make sure that film, sheets or finished books arrived at their destination. Even lowly editorial or sales staff had to understand some of the complexity of international documentation and payment methods.

These days British publishers seem blissfully unaware that such issues will again have an effect on their business if they continue to follow the UK government blindly towards the departure gate from the European Union, and Brexit also puts into question the many global agreements included under our membership of the EU. There is demonstrable concern about intellectual property, and the European media empires that control much of ‘British’ publishing must certainly have already developed contingency plan on this front that may see publishing, like banking, pharmaceuticals, IT, games and the music industries, move jobs and activities into other EU countries.

The headlines today are all about the success of British publishers in export markets, but this may be a chimera. It’s about time that more people in publishing spoke out, and loudly, against the madness that is Brexit. The Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017 would be a good time to start.

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My father carried many things in his pockets

I remember that my father carried many things in his pockets and reflect that most of these either no longer exist as everyday objects, have been replaced by technology or are socially unacceptable. This list, presented in alphabetical order, will be familiar to some but perplexing to others.

Address book to write down addresses and telephone numbers

Business cards (his own and those of people he had met)

Car keys

Cheque book for drawing cash, paying bills, and for writing notes on the back of

Cigarette lighter

Fountain pen for writing cheques, notes and signing letters

Handkerchief for nose in trouser pocket and other one for show in the breast pocket

House keys

Loose change for buying small items, giving exact change, and giving tips (never automatically included on any bill)

Office keys (including keys to a drinks cabinet and keys to a safe)

Packet of cigarettes

Penknife for opening things, sharpening things, scratching off samples of paint to take back to the laboratory

Pocket appointment diary

Propellor pencil

Wallet containing banknotes, driving licence, receipts and postage stamps


Reading three books at a time

Lately I have been trying a new kind of reading. I take three books and read them regularly at different times of each day, planting thought seeds for the coming hours and encouraging synaptic serendipity.

For the past week I have started my day with the exchange of letters between John Berger and John Christie published as Lapwing and Fox. In the afternoons I have been reading The Living Stones by Ithell Colquhoun and at night it’s Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich.

In my head today I have the image of deer appearing from the woods to listen to a flute playing; I imagine encounters with buccas in St Keverne; and I travel with Anna M. back to the site of her exile in Karaganda. The thoughts play off each other as I experiment with reading in this way.

It’s an interesting exercise; the interplay between the three books sparks many a creative thought and adds up to more than the sum of the pages turned.

Thanks for doings

The postcard dated 12 December 1945 is addressed to Mr B Crisp in Thorpe, Norwich. The message reads simply:

Thanks for doings

Although sent from Saxmundham in Suffolk, the picture on the card is from faraway British Columbia. It shows a monument in Barkerville with an inscription commemorating old Cariboo, ‘whose gold fields discovered in 1861 have added over sixty million to the wealth of the world’ and notes that here was ‘the terminus of the Great Wagon Road from Yale completed in 1856’.

Barkerville, it turns out, is named after William (Billy) Barker, born in March, Cambridgeshire, in 1817, two hundred years ago this year. He moved to California in the 1840s and then to Canada, where he found gold, mining a total of 37,500 ounces in his life. In spite of that great wealth, he died a poor man on July 11, 1894 in a nursing home in Victoria, British Columbia.

Why did A send this card to Mr Crisp in 1945? Was there a family connection with Billy Barker and the Cariboo Gold Fields? What were the ‘doings’?


In the wallet

Never less
Than a hundred


In a basket
By the bed

Tank half full

Ready to go
At any time

Waste Data

In the 1970s, while I was working for the publishing division of the Xerox Corporation, the company engaged in something called the Records Retention Programme. The purpose of this was to distinguish between records and files (loads of paper) that needed to be kept for legal or operational reasons, and to decide which could be disposed of, which could be stored more efficiently on microfilm, which moved to storage facilities that were cheaper than filing cabinets located in prime city centre offices, and which needed to be kept near to the people who generated it. It was a major operation and one that would, it was calculated, save the corporation as a whole more than fifty million dollars.

Now that such records are mostly kept in digital form, I wonder if the expense associated with retaining, organising and archiving organisational data is fully understood and taken into account by the companies that generate them. I suspect not and that the cost of keeping data that is surplus to requirements is running out of control. Does anyone know, or care, how much time, energy and money is squandered building and maintaining unnecessary server farms, mountain caverns, desert bunkers and tundra outposts? Someone certainly knows how much money is to be made by the companies doing the data warehousing job.

Mont Ventoux

This picture of a raptor near Mont Ventoux was taken in memory of Tommy Simpson who died there on a hot afternoon fifty years ago today during the 1967 Tour de France. His autobiography, Cycling Is My Life, was published in the same year.

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Coffee Beans

Recently I’ve taken to grinding coffee beans again,
And today, opening a new pack of Italian medium-roasted,
Filling up the coffee jar,
I shook and upended the vacuum-packing folds,
Making sure that every bean was out.
A sign of harder times to come.

Memorial Day

I’m reading a collection of short stories by William Styron, and I am much enjoying the confident American style that doesn’t fear long sentences and the creative variety of precise punctuation that impresses as it soothes; reading such narratives requires a concentration, but it is a concentration given willingly and – the author must have worked so hard on this – with joy and gratitude to a master just entering his prime.

The stories arise from Styron’s time in the US Marine Corps, both in the later period of war against Japan and on his recall during the Korean War. They are, I suppose, male in orientation, and as the Publisher’s Note says – not many books would have such a postscript in these days when the publisher is more disregarded than held in high regard – ‘they present a complex picture of military life – its hardships, deprivations, and stupidities; its esprit, camaraderie, and seductive allure’. I am glad to have read this work.

I notice that the story after which the collection is named, The Suicide Run, was first published in American Poetry Review in May/June1974. It must have been about this time that I visited Styron’s house in Roxbury and I have kept a few vivid memories of that time – one of those moist warm evenings which can come to New England in the days after Memorial Day – just a few months after I moved to live in New York City.

I was staying with friends in Connecticut, in Bethel, and had come to Roxbury and this house to visit another friend who was housesitting. We stayed for a few hours, enjoyed some of the Styron’s drink, lounged around, talked and laughed, and looked at books in the bookshelves. Being young and hungry we were soon in the kitchen and no doubt food was found and consumed, but that is only a vague memory. What stays in my mind from that visit was the wall-mounted telephone near the door and the list of telephone numbers, hand-written on a sheet of cardboard that was taped roughly to the scullery wall. The names and numbers were in different ballpoint ink, pencil and pen; there were crossings-out and addings-to – the way we all kept track of numbers before computers, smartphones, and even before the Filofax.

On this list there were about fifty names and many of them were recognisable – there were several Kennedys, Mailer, Capote, Bacall, and, the one that still thrills me, Sinatra. This very brief and distant exposure to the interconnected American clique of politics, literature and show business was never to be repeated. I never met Bill Styron and, until this week, never read any of his writing; but that doesn’t mean the writer – and what we might today call his contact list – haven’t been in my mind for all the intervening years. Bill Styron, Betty Bacall, Frank Sinatra. Who could forget that?